The rise of the rental: are clothing rental services the future of fashion?

With the dress-rental sector set to be worth more than £1.4 billion globally by the end of 2023, clothing rental brands are on the rise thanks to a new consumer focus on sustainability and breaking away from fast fashion’s detrimental environmental impact. Cutting down our consumption is essential given the current climate crisis, so can the share-economy offered by clothing rental services offer a solution for the future of fashion?

clothes rental

How can a bikini be made for £1? That’s what a plethora of influencers and Instagram users are asking online fast fashion retailer Missguided after it launched its promotion for a £1 barely-there black bikini endorsed by ex-Love Island stars. Despite the ever-exacerbating global climate crisis, retailers such as Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing, and the people buying from them, seem to be as oblivious as ever to the environmental and social impact behind the products they’re producing and buying, with the almost free bikini proving so popular with customers that Missguided’s website crashed. 

If a £1 price tag seems too good to be true, that’s probably because it is. The textile industry emits 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, and the success of fast fashion companies is rooted in the profit-based systems which rely on low wages paid to women working in factories, largely in developing countries. Fast fashion brands are so appealing to young people and students because of this affordability, but students and young people seem to be either oblivious to the hidden environmental and social price tag of their shopping habits, or unwilling to make curbing them a priority. While a lot of sustainable clothing brands aren’t necessarily affordable to young audiences, it’s the mindset that getting more clothes for less money is better that’s damaging. Meanwhile, spending so little on items of clothing means we’re more inclined to throw them away after only one or two wears - consumers buy an estimated 50 to 60 pieces of clothing a year, but wear each less than three times, with millennials being the biggest culprits of impulsive shopping and throw-away attitudes. So, even if we can’t afford to shop sustainably, we can all buy less clothes, and wear them more. 

Nonetheless, resale and vintage shopping is on the rise thanks to an increased interest in mindful shopping and the pressing need to cut down on consumption. With 44 million women shopping second-hand in 2017 compared to 35 million the year before, the global resale market is set to be worth $41 million by 2022. However, the millennials citing sustainability as the main reason for shopping resale or vintage are the same millennials throwing away their items after just a few years. Nonetheless, with more and more of us setting ourselves goals not to purchase items from fast fashion retailers, or to only purchase second-hand or rented clothing, the idea of fashion rental is becoming more mainstream. Rental services such as Rent the Runway and Girl Meets Dress give consumers access to higher quality and designer items for one-off occasions for a fraction of the price, allowing people to connect with brands that wouldn’t necessarily be accessible to them otherwise, but also having the potential to cause disruption to the fast fashion industry and help reduce the environmental impact of the garment industry - one of the most resource intensive in our society today. As well as giving clothes a longer life and reducing waste, the concept of fashion rental functions harmoniously with the demands of our Instagram generation in which we fear being seen or photographed wearing the same outfit more than once, and the ever-changing trends of the fashion landscape mean we dispose of items after very little wear.

It’s a trend consumers are undoubtedly buying into. Rent the Runway now boasts 10 million members, all female, values at around $1 billion, and an overwhelming 90% majority of its consumers go on to purchase again after their first rental. While the environmental footprint of rental brands is somewhat uncertain, with the costs and impacts of packaging, circulating and dry-cleaning items unclear, they seem to be a step in the right direction towards encouraging us to consume less, and changing our attitudes towards clothing ownership - a move towards a circular economy in which clothes are recycled and regenerated rather than discarded. 

High street brands are also seeing fashion rental as an opportunity to delve into. Urban Outfitters announced earlier this year that it would be launching Nuuly, a rental service offering members the chance to rent a selection of clothing from its brands including Anthropologie and Free People. But fast fashion brands don’t seem to be slowing down yet, with products like the Misguided £1 bikini and Boohoo £5 dress driving ever-increasing profits. If clothing rental services are going to offer a solution to our worrying overconsumption problem, they need to engage typical consumers of the convenient, cheap and accessible clothing offered by fast fashion brands. 

By Ruby McAuliffe